Invisible people

Letter from a low country

In the Pays des Collines in northern Hainault, Catherine and I are putting down the deposit on a flat. The flat is in the attic above a large, square farm. Smells of stewing meat waft up the stairs, geese honk in the yard. The farmer's wife who shows us round has the benign, slightly startled features of a guinea pig. A chatty women, she speaks so quickly you have the constant feeling that you have come into the story half-way through and are struggling to catch up. When Catherine points out a donkey in a nearby field, the farmer's wife exclaims: "Ah, Julie! She is five. Last weekend, the man was supposed to come to see her. Then, on Friday, the man's mother died and the man had to stay at home to comfort his father. Julie was desolated."`

In the kitchen, I hand over a 1,000BF note. "Ooh!" the farmer's wife cries excitedly at the sight of it, "The new note! I have read about it, heard of it, but never yet seen it!" She calls out, "Marie! Auntie!"

A rangy woman emerges from a side room. She has a peroxide bouffant and a denim shirt. She looks like she might break into "Stand by your Man". Instead, she comes to inspect the new note, a big smile on her ruddy face "It has King Albert on it," the farmer's wife informs her joyously.

Another door opens, and an old lady trundles into view. The only way she can stand still is to grab a piece of furniture and hang onto it. The farmer's wife waves the 1,000 franc note at her. "Auntie! The new one. Here it is!" The old lady stares at it, proclaims astonishment, then glances at us. "Netherlanders?" she asks. We tell her we are English. She smiles. "The English," she says, in English, with a haughty inflection that suggests she received tuition from Dame Edith Evans. "The English are always welcome here."

We thank her. "Do you know Yorkshire?" the old lady asks. I tell her I am from Yorkshire. "I have friends there," she says, "Mr and Mrs Denton. Perhaps you know them?" I shake my head. "Mr Denton," the old lady says in an attempt to jog my memory, "works up a tower". Before she can explain further, she loses her grip on the table and disappears out of the door Marie came in through.

A few days later, we are dining with a Flemish friend and I tell her this story. When I finish, she smiles dutifully. Perhaps you had to be there, I say.

Later, though, I begin to suspect that her reaction had to do with the fact the incident occurred in Wallonia - French-speaking Belgium. When you talk about Wallonia to the Flemish, you can see their eyes glaze over. Mention a town 10 miles away but across the linguistic border, and they shake their heads. "No, I don't know it." Even big Wallonian cities are a mystery to Flemings who live half an hour's drive from them. "I never go to Liege," a man from Tongeren said with a shrug. "I have no reason to."

Years ago, I went to watch the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, Flanders' biggest cycle race. In a bar in Ghent, I met an Austrian cycling fan who lived in the city. Talking about Belgium, he said: "I like the Flemish a lot. After all, I am married to a Flemish woman. They are kind, hospitable, much more friendly than the Austrians. But," he sighed, "they cannot speak for more than a minute without telling you how badly done to they are."

It is something which comes through in cycling, the sport at which the Flemish most excel. Over the years, Flemish riders have earned a reputation across Europe for toughness and courage and grumbling. In the past, they rarely lost without airing some grievance. For men like Seventies World Champion Freddy Maertens, every defeat was a sign of a sinister conspiracy to cheat Flanders of its rightful glory.

Not that the Flemish don't have reason to complain. After all, it wasn't until the Belgium state was 50-years-old that the first speech in Flemish was heard in the Parliament building in Brussels. In the 1920s, when debate raged over whether the University of Ghent should become exclusively Flemish- speaking, a Wallonian MP felt moved to remark that replacing French culture with Flemish culture was like replacing a lighthouse with a candle.

I had expected the Flemish might be angry with the Walloons. What I had not anticipated was this total indifference. To the Flemings, Wallonia seems almost not to exist at all. It is as if in their minds all that stands between East Flanders, Flemish Brabant, Limburg and northern France is a void. Like some disgraced member of the politburo in an old Soviet photo, Wallonia has been air-brushed off the Flemish map of Europe.

A week or so after the story of the Mr Denton up the tower has failed to make our Flemish friend laugh, we move to the flat in Hainault. On the first night, the farmer himself comes up to meet us. He does not look much like the farmers I am used to. He has long, white locks and a raffish cravat. "Enchanted, Marvellous!" he says, clasping our hands. "My wife, I trust, has explained about the toilet? You must not flush anything else down it, you understand. Nothing else. No... no... he searches for something likely but unembarrassing. We wait what seems a long time. Finally, the farmer says, "Nuts."

I think this is pretty funny. But if I ever tell it to a Fleming, I will pretend it happened in the Dordogne

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